Iowa saw more than its fair share of Democratic presidential hopefuls come through the state these past two years – more than two dozen by my count. But not every Democrat with a national profile who traveled to Iowa had their eyes on a White House run.
And while several notable names won’t be candidates in the wild, free-for-all Iowa Caucus in 2020, their vision, work and influence here could easily shape how the nomination process plays out.
Rising stars in Congress like Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal could help form the debate over what it means to be a progressive in the Democratic Party. And well-known leaders like Cecile Richards may impact which issues are at the top of Iowans’ minds and could organize new blocs of voters to attend the caucus. They and others have already come out to Iowa and have begun to make in-roads in the lead-up to 2020.
Endorsements from national Democratic figures who have built up connections with Iowa activists will also be at a premium for the large field of candidates. With so many White House hopefuls criss-crossing the state, it will take a lot to get a caucus-goer to come out to an event that doesn’t feature an actual candidate. But someone like Jason Kander, who made a lot of friends here the past two years, could certainly help someone cover Iowa’s 99 counties with events.
Here’s several out-of-state influencers who Starting Line thinks could play a big role in shaping the debate and eventual winner of the Iowa Caucus:
Congressman Ro Khanna
Since first getting elected to his Bay Area congressional district in 2016, Congressman Ro Khanna has quickly emerged as a leading national voice on progressive issues. His is also a rather unique one, in that he pitches ideas of supporting innovative tech jobs and partnerships with Silicon Valley’s best minds as the way the country can solve issues of economic inequality.
Khanna has already been to Iowa four times since 2016, building up relationships with key progressive activists that will be influential in the early stages of the caucus race. And when he shares his vision of tech jobs and Silicon Valley cooperation with the presidential candidates, he’ll have a very helpful example of how he’s literally already implemented that idea in Iowa.
Over this past weekend, Khanna attended an unveiling event of a new project in Jefferson, Iowa (population 4,200) that brings high-tech and high-paying software design jobs and a training academy to rural Iowa. It’s the culmination of a partnership that kicked off when Khanna met with Iowa business and education leaders during a previous visit in July. Pillar Technology wanted to expand their offices into a small Iowa town, so Khanna got on the phone with Silicon Valley leaders he knows to help. About a dozen of those tech leaders, including the CTO of Microsoft and a LinkedIn executive, invested and flew out to Iowa for the Jefferson event.
Khanna wants the Democratic field to take note.
“I hope they all look at what we’re doing here with the Silicon Valley-Jefferson partnership,” Khanna told Starting Line. “How is the Democratic Party going to stand for job creation for the future? We know the president has a vision of job creation of the past. His vision is I’m going to let you keep what you had. We’ve got to say we’re going to bring the new jobs to you and the future to you. Make it a future versus past challenge.”
He also sees it as a way for Democrats to build out a real plan for rural America that still appeals to all aspects of society.
“What are we going to do to unify this country?” Khanna asked. “Not just through inspiration as President Obama did, but through concrete actions of overcoming structural barriers in economic opportunity. What is the Democratic Party going to ask of people in Silicon Valley, in Boston, in Austin to do to create partnerships with rural America? It’s not just that it’s winning politics. It’s what’s going to win for our country and make sure we lead the 21st Century.”
Some speculated earlier this year that the former Planned Parenthood president would run herself for president in 2020. She’s not, instead targeting her talents on encouraging and training other women to get more involved in the political system. Richards hosted a series of Stand Up, Speak Out events across the country this year, aiming to turn the enthusiasm from women new to politics into focused activism. Part of that activism will likely include attending their local caucus in 2020.
The organization held one rather well-attended session in Iowa in late September.
“Women are self-organizing. They’re raising their hand, but don’t know how the political process works,” Richards told Starting Line. “I think there’s an opportunity now to turn women’s energy and activism into voting … Some of this is breaking down those barriers and dispelling some of the mythology around voting and getting people information they need.”
Richards’ project started off with listening sessions around the country to gauge women’s feelings about the Trump era. They later held training sessions in several states, including Iowa, Arizona, Georgia and Ohio.
“Iowa is a really important state,” she noted. “I hope that what we’re starting here in Iowa will be an opportunity to put a lens on these elections in the future about where do candidates stand on fundamental economic equality for women … I think linking all these women together so when all the presidential hopefuls come through, that they answer to a bill of particulars for women. Obviously, I’ve been working on women’s access to healthcare and reproductive rights for many years, but women have a lot of other issues too, including basic economic fairness and their ability to participate in the workforce.”
Every caucus cycle features one or more presidential candidates finding and activating some new base of Iowans who have never caucused before to turn out for them. Richards’ work could turn women who were previously politically-unengaged into a serious force for whichever 2020 contender best speaks to their issues.
Congresswoman Cheri Bustos
Sure, Bustos is going to have her hands full for the 2020 cycle while serving as the new chair of the DCCC. But she often pops up at a few Iowa political events every year, an easy trip as her rural Illinois district neighbors Iowa along the Mississippi River, and she’ll likely be back while the caucus contest is in full stride.
Part of what 2020 Democrats will look to learn as they campaign in Iowa is how to win back rural Midwestern communities, and there’s no one in the party who knows more about that than Bustos. She represents a Trump district that she herself carried by 20 points in 2016 and 24 points in 2018. Bustos helped recruit many candidates who flipped red seats to blue this year.
Anyone seeking to be the party’s top-of-ticket in 2020 should also want to build up a good relationship with the DCCC chair, as Bustos is working to ensure the next Democratic president has a friendly, long-lasting House majority to work with. Bustos certainly has her own ideas on what works and what doesn’t for Democrats. “She talks as much as she can about jobs and wages and the economy and as little as she can about guns and abortion and other socially divisive issues,” a profile of her from 2017 noted. She’s also stressed that candidates need to actually campaign in-person more often, and could be useful in suggesting to 2020 hopefuls how to better connect personally with voters on the campaign trail.
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal
The first-term congresswoman from Seattle made just one trip out to Iowa this year after being recommended as a rising star in the party by Nancy Pelosi. Jayapal cannot legally run for president (she was born in India), but progressives should hope she makes many more appearances in the early nominating states. She’s already made it clear that 2020 will be a chance for progressives to “leverage our power” and warned candidates that “you don’t just get to say that you’re progressive.”
When Bernie Sanders nearly won the 2016 Iowa Caucus, he did it with a broad coalition that reached beyond the party’s most-ideological, left-leaning voters (including a lot of people who just plain didn’t like Hillary Clinton). Many progressive candidates who tried to follow in Sanders’ footsteps came up short in high-profile primaries in 2018. For a real progressive to capture the party’s nomination in 2020, they’ll have to once again put together a coalition.
For candidates looking to accomplish that, they should go back and watch the last half of Jayapal’s speech at this year’s Polk County Democrats Steak Fry. She effectively framed the progressive agenda in a way that just about any Democrat (and most Americans) could get on board with.
“We were not born for small thinking, and no big problem has a small solution,” Jayapal said. “So even though I’m a proud progressive … I don’t actually think these ideas are actually progressive. I think they’re centrist. I think they speak to the center of the country. Because ideas like collective bargaining, workplace democracy, universal healthcare, equal pay, living wages, college-for-all, those are not radical ideas, they’re actually cemented into the success of every industrialized country in the world except for America. They are a necessary check on corporate greed.”
She also wasn’t afraid to specifically call out the party’s failures in past elections.
“We got attached to the myth of the likely voter and we forgot about the truth of every voter,” Jayapal argued. “2016 was about ordinary Americans and poor folks of all races who felt forgotten and left out, and frankly, uninspired by what we had offered so far.”
Jayapal, now co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, aims to be a major voice in the 2020 nomination. As her profile rises, an endorsement from her could carry a lot of weight for voters hoping to pick one of the candidates running in the progressive lane. And Jayapal could be a very useful surrogate on the Iowa campaign trail for that person.
While Kander put his next steps in running for office on hold to deal with depression and PTSD, it’s unlikely we’ve heard the last from the former Missouri Secretary of State (in a recent tweet he said he’d get back in the public arena sometime in 2019). Kander actually visited Iowa after the 2016 election more than any national Democrat save for John Delaney. He built up a lot of friendships during that time here, and his singular cause of voting rights with the Let America Votes organization set him apart. The group’s field work was also instrumental in getting several state legislators elected.
Many Iowans would happily welcome Kander to make some more drives up I-35 during caucus season. One could easily envision him hosting forums with multiple candidates on voting rights issues and keeping that topic front-and-center for the field. If he ends up favoring any specific candidate, Kander’s also got a small army of former LAV staffers and interns with Iowa experience that he could help send someone’s way.
The Parkland Students
The survivors-turned-activists from one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings held a couple events in Iowa this year in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids and Marion. One would expect them to schedule some return visits next year, both to organize Iowans to go caucus and participate in candidate forums focused on gun violence prevention.
Since most 17-year-olds can attend and vote in the caucus, there’s always an effort by some campaigns to organize high school students to turn out. The Parkland students could be an important part of mobilizing that extra voting bloc to back a candidate who they see as taking an important stance on guns.
These six are simply the first that come to Starting Line’s mind thanks to their recent travels to Iowa. There will most certainly be other prominent out-of-staters who have an impact too, these particular folks listed here just got a head start (I’m also probably forgetting one or two others).
And several Democrats who are seriously considering bids may yet play an important role in Iowa even if they end up passing on those runs, especially those who have championed very specific causes. Tom Steyer, Eric Swalwell and Michael Bloomberg probably all end up running, but if any of them don’t, you’ll likely still see Steyer here pitching impeachment and climate change, Swalwell encouraging younger candidates, and Bloomberg funding climate change and anti-gun violence messages. If South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg doesn’t run, he should still pop up in Iowa from time to time to help someone he endorses or simply advise Democrats on how to win back the Midwest.
Others who haven’t been to Iowa but are fresh, rising stars from 2018 like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke (if he doesn’t run himself), Stacey Abrams, and Andrew Gillium, could all find their way here to affect the debate.
Essentially, the Democratic presidential field could grow to 30 or more, but those won’t be the only important names who show up in Iowa. Caucus-goers may want to start planning their days off from work now in order to see them all.
by Pat Rynard